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In India, a Generation of Students Hit by Some of the World’s Longest School Closures

Pooja Sharma (in white shirt on left) and her two sisters missed many online classes because they had to share the phone with their brother. (Suhasini Sood/VOA)

New Delhi — School shutdowns that lasted nearly two years in India will hit the aspirations of millions of low-income families who had hoped a good education would lift their children out of poverty, according to experts.

India had the longest school closures of any country except Uganda during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a United Nations report — schools were shut for 82 weeks until October last year. Since then, they have opened intermittently.

With around 250 million students enrolled in 1.5 million schools, India has the world’s second largest school-going population. But access to online learning has been extremely limited among low-income groups, especially for girls, both due to lack of smartphones and patchy internet connectivity in its vast rural areas.

As schools start to reopen, the challenge of overcoming two years of lost learning will be huge, say educators.

“A lot of children will struggle with lessons and end up dropping out of school in frustration,” fears Surender Yadav, from Self Reliant India, a voluntary group that provides additional coaching to primary school students in government schools in the north Indian states of Haryana and Uttarakhand to ensure that they get a good education and jobs. “The children that we are tutoring now need a lot more assistance in each subject. Besides not getting proper lessons during lockdown, they have forgotten what was taught to them earlier,” points out Yadav.

Only around 8% of students in villages and 24% of the students in urban areas were studying regularly online according to a survey last August by a group of economists in India, who warned of the “catastrophic consequences” of the prolonged school lockout.

As many as 37% were not studying at all.

Pooja Sharma is a grade eight student who lives in Faridabad town on the outskirts of New Delhi with her mother, a housemaid, and four siblings. The children attend a neighborhood school run by a voluntary group that started online classes as soon as the lockdown began in March 2020.

But with only one smartphone in the family, the four siblings have to take turns to use it to attend online classes. In a country where patriarchal norms are common, priority goes to their brother. “My teacher told me to join as many classes as I could. My younger sisters and I use the phone whenever my elder brother is not using it and we attend a few classes a week,” Sharma said. “I find it very difficult to understand the lessons. I do not know how I will manage as there is no one to explain all the missed lessons.”

Schools in several states in India remain closed for in-person classes for younger students. (Suhasini Sood/VOA)
Schools in several states in India remain closed for in-person classes for younger students. (Suhasini Sood/VOA)

She is waiting for schools to reopen, but is anxious how she will cope as she prepares to step into a higher grade.

“The impact of the school closure has been far worse for girls. Even when there were smartphones at home, the girls were not given the device for fear of misuse,” Terry Durnnian, Chief of Education, United Nations Children Fund told VOA. “Also, the girls were expected to take on the load of housework. The long-term impact will be that there will be far fewer women in the workforce in coming years.”

Sharma’s fear of not being able to keep pace is shared by many say educators.

It is a huge setback for millions of low-income families who in recent decades focused on educating their children, hoping it would put them on a good career path.

They are people like Kamal Singh, who works as a taxi driver in Gurgaon, a thriving business hub near the capital, New Delhi. After losing his work during the lockdown in 2020, he returned to his village in Bayana, Rajasthan, where his family lives.

His sons Kapil and Brajraj were studying in Grade 10 and 11 but the village school held no classes for a year and a half. “I was very worried about them. They would be out of the house all day long. Their behavior got more aggressive, and I was concerned that they might get into trouble,” he said.

Schools reopened in the village last October and promoted them to the next grade without any examination, but his sons are struggling to keep up with the lessons. His aspirations of sending them to college have taken a hit — with his own income dwindling due to the pandemic, he cannot afford extra coaching for them.

Indian policy makers have often underlined the demographic asset of a young workforce over countries with ageing populations like China. But experts say the challenge of bridging a two-year schooling gap will result in tens of thousands of young people remaining undereducated and erode India’s advantage.

“The demographic dividend might not pay off. With the extended school closures, a $4 trillion loss in lifetime earnings is estimated,” said Durnnian from UNICEF.

Acknowledging that students from rural areas and marginalized sections have been impacted by the school closures, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said this month that the government would provide supplementary education in local languages by expanding existing educational television channels to 200. But experts question whether that would help — although television is widely available, electricity is often erratic in the country’s vast rural areas.

They say the imperative need is to reopen all schools — while in person classes have started for higher grades in many places, younger ones have still not been called back. Some states have opened schools fully.

“I don’t know of any reason why schools should be shut, especially when children are at least risk of COVID-19 outcomes, while benefits of education are far superior,” points out Chandrakant Lahariya, a public policy and health expert. “Every single day away from in-person classes causes harm to children. Our education system has been unnecessarily paralyzed by the pandemic for so long.”

Suhasini Sood contributed to this story.